There is no question that we live in extremely dark times. In the last several days, fifty Muslims were massacred while they worshiped in Christchurch, New Zealand. A young soldier and rabbi were murdered by a terrorist in the West Bank, and as a of the time that I am writing this, a gunman has just gone into a church in Nigeria and killed fifty-two people while they prayed. This is all happened in just a few days.
My people have suffered greatly as well, especially in the twentieth century where one third of the Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. As a Jew I know too well of this violence. Whether it was the first time that I heard anti-Semitic words shouted in my direction or felt the sting of anti-Semitism on my body as I was punched and called a “Jew boy,” I know how much hate can hurt.
We must also understand that as Jews must we have at times contributed to this dynamic. Whether it’s the end of the Purim Story that we read today where we take up arms and slaughter our oppressors including the innocents of Persia or in the end of the Passover Seder where we ask God to pour out Divine wrath upon those who have terrified us, or other the times in modern history where vengeance was confused with justice.
As Jews there were times, not many but enough to note where we bought into the pain chain.
Trauma breeds trauma. Pain creates pain.
Which is why when we ask questions about religion and violence we know why so many people might be walking away from faith. A human body can only take so much pain, how much more so the soul? These violent attacks in the name of religion or against a person of faith target more than just bodies. They target the soul of humanity, the core idea of being human and living and striving in a world together. Terror affects the body, but it’s real attack is against the heart.
How do we break the pain chain? When the heart is attacked, how do we strike back?
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we find an answer. This week we find the most unique ritual sacrifice, called the ascension offering (some call it the burnt offering). The ritual entails bringing an animal to the Tabernacle and sacrificing it in its entirety. The verse states, “This is the teaching, (lit.Torah) of the ascension offering: The ascension offering itself shall remain where it is, burning on the altar all night until morning; the fire must be kept going.” (Lev.6:2)
Now animal sacrifices sound strange to the modern ear, but think of it this way. A sacrifice is an ancient way of connecting to God. It’s how you can find intimacy within a vast universe that might not seem to care about you. It’s an act of drawing close, of finding a friend in the swarm of life. Sacrifice is an act of defiance that says against the backdrop of meaninglessness I can discover meaning. The world for this sacrifice is “olah” meaning ascension, which is why this particular sacrifice is so special because it burns all the way. Nothing is left – it all goes up to God. The ascension sacrifice burns throughout the night, it has to be tended to – the fire must be kept going until the morning.
In the midrash, the rabbis take this sacrifice to a truly spiritual place. Playing on its name, they ask what is Torat Olah, or “The Torah of Ascension?” In other words, what is the type of Torah that ascends to heaven? What is the kind of religion that transcends everything, that leaves nothing behind, and goes all the way up to God?
The rabbis teach that this kind of Torah is not just found out in the world, but inside heart. (Lev. Rabba 7:3) This is the intention behind the ascension offering – It is the heart that ascends more than the body. It is the heart that rises in compassion and can change the world.
At the heart of religion is a throbbing universe who wants nothing more than each of us to rise up. You are made of transcendent stuff, and God wants your character to transcend your most primitive self. This Torah of Ascension is meant to take away the pain in your heart, not give you more of it. To eliminate violence not to spread it. Religion that attacks the heart, that causes trauma and makes people suffer does not deserve and cannot bear the name religion.
At the heart of religion is the heart of itself. When the heart is attacked, we need our hearts to attack back.
God understands the heart of the oppressed, the lowly, the downtrodden, the poor. The entire story of the Torah is a story of a people who had nothing but oppression and were redeemed. It has been the hope and guide to millions upon millions of people looking for their own redemption. God has always stood with the oppressed. God has always been with the lowly. Religion must be a force that holds back those who want to attack the heart of humanity. God wants to empower the heart instead to fight injustice. To help the poor and the naked. To feed the hungry. To break the chain.
Don’t think this is a small or weak thing. As the Hasidic Master, Netivot Shalom, said of this week’s portion, “What is the Torah of Ascension? The power of Torah itself.” The hardened heart is like a stone. It does not move or care for others. It is dead inside and brings only death. A strong heart, on the other hand, is soft and full of love. It pumps and throbs for justice. It brings life, even to the dead.
What we need now more than ever is a sacred heart attack.
By bringing your pain and laying bare the injustices of the world we can break the pain chain. Use your heart to attack hate. Suffocate it with love. Shut it down. Rise up.
This is the Torah of Ascension, the religion that is needed now. The kind of religion that allows us to ascend to our best selves. One that burns into the night in the very darkest of times. To break the chains, to keep the fire going. To rise up in love.